I played so many great games this year. Spider-Man, Uncharted 4, Celeste, Metroid Prime 2, Into the Breach, Horizon Zero Dawn, Short Hike, Bloodborne, Furi… all worth playing, but people online already talk about these games a lot and I don’t have much to add to the conversation.
This list compiles the smaller stuff I played this year. Only one actually released in 2020, but they all deserve more recognition. Some of these I was looking forward to, and some I just found because I’m one of those schlubs who will buy stuff I haven’t heard of if it goes on a crazy discount. The latter I feel somewhat guilty about because all of these are absolutely worth full price. I’m also listing where these games were developed. In a year characterized by worldwide lockdown, there’s something so cool about playing games made on the other side of the planet. Off we go!
Pitch: Easy breezy puzzle platformer
Made in: South Africa
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Switch
Puzzle platformers. If you’re reading this, you’ve played one before. I like them in moderation, especially as a refreshing treat if you’re plowing through a beefy AAA title at the same time.
Semblance doesn’t have mind-blowing hand-drawn art, nor a story. Instead, there’s a rock-solid mechanic spread across batches of puzzles, each introducing one new concept at a time. Nothing here is going to break your brain, but the breezy pacing and steady difficulty curve will keep you invested. I like the understated music here too — sort of an earthy, organic Hans Zimmer. It’s a lean game. Everything that’s here clicks.
Pitch: 60% Donkey Kong Country, 40% 2D Zelda
Made in: England
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
I’m a Donkey Kong Country nut. I have played them all multiple times. Diddy’s Kong Quest (you better believe I got that apostrophe right) and Tropical Freeze are my favorites. Unfortunately, Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair has neither the snappy bounce of the former nor the weighty momentum of the latter. Even though a good chunk of the level design is ripped directly from Donkey Kong Country, the floaty movement dampens all of it. There’s also a lot of asset reuse, alongside weak enemy designs straight out of a 3D animated kids movie you found in Walmart’s bargain bin.
The reality? The core of this game was never going to fare well in comparison with Donkey Kong’s adventures. But I think the developers were aware of that, which is why Impossible Lair includes so much beyond just the 2D platforming: a Zelda-like overworld with puzzles, secrets to find, remixed levels completely unlike the original versions, and a massive, experimental final level. And because of all this other stuff, Impossible Lair suddenly has its own identity. Playtonic Games clearly understood their limitations and crafted a game that thrives because it balances its different components, even if those components don’t quite hit the highs of the inspirations.
This game will always stick with me, though, because the soundtrack is unbelievable. Bigwigs Grant Kirkhope and David Wise contributed a few tracks, but most of the OST was crafted by Matt Griffin and Dan Murdoch, two newcomers to the DKC extended family. The best tracks here belong among the best tracks in all of Donkey Kong Country, which as a franchise has some of my favorite music in games ever. There’s a different track for literally every level, and the hit rate is so much higher than I initially assumed. I will be returning to this soundtrack with the same frequency that I return to Donkey Kong Country’s legendary tunes. Insane.
Pitch: Halloween Metroidvania
Made in: U.S.
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Somewhere in a Universal conference room, an executive pitched a movie franchise to rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tom Cruise showed up at some point to cause shenanigans. Then the first movie came out and flopped and everybody abandoned the ship. BUT! Somebody contacted Wayforward for a licensed Metroidvania tie-in somewhere in that process. Ergo, Mummy Demastered.
I started this game on a Friday evening, intending to play for 30 minutes before bed. Cut to 5 hours later, I had played through the whole thing in one sitting. What a trip. Great pixel art, solid level design, areas that don’t stretch on for too long, cool enemies, fun weapons, and a hypnotizing soundtrack dripping with pulse-pounding synths. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but unlike many of its genre peers, it cuts out all the fluff. You are discovering new rooms constantly, thanks to the straightforward world design.
Fun fact: the guy who did all the music works as a Narrative Designer at Bungie.
Pitch: Chubby worms, demonic toast, and goofs galore
Made in: England
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux, Xbox One, Switch
I initially wrote Pikuniku off because I thought it was one of those twee, bug-riddled messes intended for streamers and content creators, along the lines of Goat Simulator. It was an admittedly harsh judgement. Then the above trailer came out and charmed me to death.
Good stop-motion animation can sell me on anything, and I’m happy to say that it didn’t let me down. This is a legitimately fun adventure game with some bouncy platforming and simple puzzles. The funny dialogue made me smile multiple times across the 3 to 4 hour runtime, with goofy characters sprinkled throughout. The catchy soundtrack evokes a children’s picture book; if you played the composer’s last work, Lovely Planet, you can expect something similar here, especially in how it captures the cheery vibe of Katamari Damacy without the lyrics.
Pitch: Fast and fluid loop-de-loop Metroidvania
Made in: Brazil
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux, Phones, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Remember the beehive levels in Donkey Kong Country 2 with the honey that locks you in place? This entire game is that level. So how do you prevent the pace from slowing to a halt? Remove gravity. And suddenly you get some of the most fascinating movement ever in a Metroidvania.
Dandara sticks to surfaces covered in salt, but her dash can propel her between those surfaces. This lets you zip through rooms in seconds, but the threats in your way occupy the same space you do. There were so many situations where I needed to escape an incoming bullet, only to bump into another enemy’s trajectory on my way to a different surface. I wouldn’t call Dandara a puzzle game, but you need to carefully consider every movement when fighting hordes of enemies in tight corridors. It’s frantic and a ton of fun.
I would love a sequel because I just want more of it, but I also think there's room for improvement. You zip through the labyrinthine map so quickly that it’s difficult to build a mental map. I had to step away for a few weeks, and my return was completely discombobulating. All Metroidvanias have that problem, but it’s especially true here and I think stronger level design in a sequel could alleviate the issue. The game’s cryptic dialogue and evocative art also deserve a stronger payoff. There’s very little story here, but the flashes of Brazilian culture and history are so engaging that I wish they culminated in more than a handful of moments. I bought the game because Nior wrote an absolutely fantastic blog about Dandara’s relationship with Brazil, and I wish the game put a spotlight on more of that.
As a final note, the boss theme is wicked. It electrifies the game’s 5 boss battles. A strong contender for my favorite combat music in a game ever.
Pitch: Chaotic yet cozy tower defense
Made in: Japan
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Switch
So many games have attempted the “hand-crafted” look. Little Big Planet, Kirby Epic Yarn / Rainbow Curse, Yoshi Wooly World / Crafted World, Paper Mario, the Link’s Awakening remake, and Tearaway stuff their worlds with paper, clay, and other arts-and-crafts materials to appear as tangible (and cuddly) as possible. These are games developed by the biggest names in the business, and yet Pixeljunk Monsters 2 looks just as good if not better. Somewhere between felt and clay, the visuals here are stunning. The developers even included a first-person mode that’s hilariously useless from a gameplay standpoint, but enchanting as a gateway to witnessing the miniature wildlife at eye level.
Pixeljunk Monsters 2 is a tower defense game. Sometimes fun, sometimes relaxing, sometimes punishing. It frustrated me more than any of the other games on this list, which I think is partially because of the nature of tower defense but also because you can’t progress without perfect clears. You’ll spend most of your time repeating levels until you memorize the different waves, protecting your base from literally all the enemies. I probably rage quit this game a good 3 or 4 times. So why didn’t I put it down for good?
For one thing, the vibe is gentle and lovely. Jukio Kallio’s warm soundtrack meshes so well with the world. For another, the game nails the satisfaction of multitasking. There’s nothing quite like running around your well-oiled machine — upgrading a building over here, collecting some coins over there, chasing that spider headed towards your base. This is a slow, yet satisfying burn that nails the best part of tower defense better than many of its peers. The occasional frustration is worth pushing through.
Pitch: Peaceful, melancholic audiovisual feat
Made in: U.S.
Platforms: Windows, Mac
In my day to day life, I most frequently feel peace at night, while I’m sitting in bed before I fall asleep. Part of that is probably because I'm not staring at a screen, and part of that is the satisfaction of a break before tomorrow begins. I really treasure that peace. There’s a sadness to it, but it’s not necessarily a bad sadness. During that “checkpoint" in life, I take a step back and accept my concerns, or at least find peace with them in the moment.
Timeframe captures that emotion. The game portrays a fallen kingdom, soaked in sunset moments before its destruction. The version I’m talking about here is actually the two-hour-long expanded edition of a Ludum Dare walking simulator that lasted 10 minutes. I don’t know how the hell I stumbled upon that project originally, but it has always stuck with me. I have played the game twice in my life, and yet I retain a stronger mental image for it than most of the media I consume (Journey included, which is probably the closest comparison in terms of atmosphere).
This medley of Clark Aboud’s stunning soundtrack, among my favorite pieces of video game music, is my best pitch.
Pitch: Galaga but you’re a dolphin
Made in: U.S.
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Phones
I discovered this in an itch.io bundle this year and downloaded it because the dolphin was cute. What a gem. Think Galaga but with a lot of garnish: achievements galore, powerups that carry over between runs, and different weapons.
Really well-designed, too. They snuck so many tiny risk-reward loops in, thanks to great enemy placement and design. If you can keep the pufferfish alive, you’ll gain an extra ring at the end of the wave. Fire a volley of your recharging supply of special attacks, but only if you think you can avoid the clams’ reflective shells. Mechanically, everything's super slick. I was playing Horizon Zero Dawn when I downloaded Sonar Smash, and while the complexity of the former was rewarding, the latter’s simplicity and replayability stuck with me. This is a “boot up whenever for 5 minutes of fun” kind of game, which will always find a way to my heart.
Pitch: Brisk, heartfelt 3D Zelda
Made in: Mexico
Platforms: Windows, Mac, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
This game, inspired by the culture of the Tarahumara people in Mexico, ended up in my library because I like to pretend I’m a world traveler. Experiencing something from halfway across the world in my underwear is neat. What surprised me most is how much fun Mulaka is. Legitimately! They were smart about what they pulled from 3D Zelda; there’s nothing overly ambitious here, and they strike a safe balance between easy puzzles, exploration, and combat. And the environments are a feat. Even though every level is essentially a Zelda dungeon, none of them feel like the typical dingy cave or medieval crypt. The game is full of bright, surprisingly open deserts and jungles that are pleasurable to traverse and to look at. Great bosses too.
Pitch: Lean, mean Contra machines
Made in: Sweden
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Fun boss rush game! It might not have the aesthetic flair of some of its contemporaries, but the sense of scale here makes up for it. The creator, Bertil Hörberg, described it as “a mix of Contra and Shadow of the Colossus,” as you climb all over gargantuan bosses to find the weak points. I was really impressed by the creativity of each boss phase, as destroying parts of each robot often totally changes the level design and flow of the moment-to-moment.
Mechstermination Force is also just such a clean experience. Consistent with Hörberg’s other projects, there’s no fat here. You can get through everything in 3 or 4 hours, and it’s all exceptionally well-designed.
What did you play in 2020 that deserves more recognition? What indies in your backlog are you looking forward to playing in 2021?
Thank you for reading!